Three Little Letters That, When Strung Together, Insult A Nation
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
With Ukraine struggling for territorial integrity, it may seem trivial to worry about something as mundane as a name.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
But nobody likes being called by the wrong name, and that goes for places as well as people. In the case of Ukraine, it's happened a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO MONTAGE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Don't doubt the bipartisan concern that's been expressed about the situation in the Ukraine. There's something immediately...
JARED LETO: To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight, in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela...
WAYNE KNIGHT: (As Newman) I still have armies in the Ukraine.
MICHAEL RICHARDS: (As Kramer) The Ukraine...
BLOCK: That was President Obama, actor Jared Leto and the characters Newman and Kramer from "Seinfeld," all bungling the country's name.
CORNISH: The Ukraine is a common construction, but it's wrong. That nation's constitution clearly names it as Ukraine. And the insertion of that definite article definitely bothers some people.
PETER FEDYNSKY: When people say the Ukraine, I feel somehow a little twinge.
BLOCK: Ukrainian-American translator Peter Fedynsky says the "the" is demeaning. The confusion, he says, stems from the root word for Ukraine: krai.
FEDYNSKY: Krai can mean land, it can be country, it can be edge; it may mean borderland.
BLOCK: And that's why in Soviet times and earlier, referring to the Ukraine, or the borderland, was common.
CORNISH: Today, Fedynsky says those three letters make a big difference to Ukrainians.
FEDYNSKY: Well, language is a powerful thing, and it creates certain impressions. And if you attach "the" to the name of the country, you diminish its value; and you question its independence, and take for granted that it belongs to someone else. Well, it doesn't.
BLOCK: Of course, to confuse matters, some countries do embrace the "the," for example, the Philippines and the United States.
CORNISH: But to recap, Ukraine is the country. The Ukraine, that's just a mistake. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.